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Keeping fleeing Syrians safe from mines and UXO

by Clare Hargreaves, MAG | @MAGsaveslives | MAG (Mines Advisory Group)
Tuesday, 8 October 2013 16:27 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Around 59,000 Syrians have fled to northern Iraq over the past month in one of the biggest waves of refugees since the conflict began. As thousands flock into areas potentially riddled with landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), MAG is helping to keep men, woman and children safe.

The recent exodus has pushed the number of Syrian refugees in Iraq close to 200,000, creating desperate conditions. 

The existing camp at Domiz in Dohuk Governorate is overwhelmed. New camps and centres to help shelter those escaping the violence cannot be built quickly enough.

But, following decades of conflict, northern Iraq is an area scattered with mines and other explosive weapons. Around 13 camps and centres are currently under construction in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, many on the sites of former military bases and fortresses where potentially deadly items litter the ground. 

So far, MAG has cleared land equivalent to almost 300 Wembley-sized football pitches to help provide shelter, water and basic amenities to Syrian refugees.

By clearing more land so that camps can be built and expanded, MAG's work is helping to ease the immense pressure on overcrowded facilities.

"It's a desperate situation," says MAG Chief Executive Nick Roseveare, who visited the Domiz camp earlier this year. "People are living in near destitution in the rain and mud, with diseases like measles rampant. Conditions are difficult to say the least. More space is urgently needed."

Plans to extend the camp are under way. But with the whole area located on the plot of an old, sprawling military camp, the surrounding countryside also poses a threat.

As well as clearing land, MAG is helping to educate families in the camp about the risks.

Says Nick, "Women and children are venturing out to collect fruit and wild flowers to supplement their meagre rations. This part of Iraq is heavily contaminated by bombs and munitions that could easily explode if uncovered."

As well as working with authorities to deliver risk education programmes in refugee centres and at the Shilikye border, a new project is delivering safety messages to a mass audience, courtesy of a short film alerting people to the potential threats underneath their feet.

Produced by MAG, in conjunction with the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), UNICEF and other Mine Action implementing agencies, the film is currently being played in refugee camps with plans to target other conflict-affected Syrians through broadcast via media outlets in the region.

For children, who currently make up half of the refugee population, MAG’s risk education is particularly crucial. Concludes Nick: "Children the world over are naturally inquisitive and most likely to pick up, and play with, something interesting in the ground.

"Sadly, this curiosity, as well the fact that their bodies are less likely to survive an explosion, means that children are particularly vulnerable."

For the stream of refugees still pouring from Syria close to ground contaminated by the deadly debris of war, the work of MAG and its risk education teams is a lifesaver. Said Abdullah, who crossed the border with his wife, mother and eight children: "I'm glad MAG was there to tell us about the dangers when we arrived. I came here for my children – I just want them to be safe."

For more about MAG's work in Iraq and worldwide, go to www.maginternational.org.

• Thanks to all the public, institutional and government donors to MAG's operations in Iraq, including: Australian Aid; German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Hind Aladwani; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands; NVESD HD R & D Program; Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency); US Department of State's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. Without this support, MAG's lifesaving work in the country could not be carried out.